U.Va. Environmental Sciences Grad Student Attends Workshop in Malaysia

August 6, 2010 — University of Virginia Environmental Sciences doctoral candidate Jennifer Holm was one of two U.S. graduate students selected to participate in a recent international ecological workshop in Malaysia.

With travel funding provided by the National Science Foundation, Holm participated in the "Second Analytical Workshop on Dynamic Plot Application and Tool Design," July 18-23 in Kuala Lumpur.

The workshop brought together experts on tropical forests and ecological informatics to use innovative computational tools to examine how the biodiversity and spatial structure of forests change between locations.

The international workshop, hosted by the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia, included participants from the United States, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam.

Kristin Vanderbilt, another workshop participant and acting co-chair of the U.S. Long Term Ecological Research International Committee, chose Holm from a slate of candidates nationally.

"Jennifer was an ideal candidate for the workshop because of her knowledge of tropical forest ecology and because of her strong quantitative skills," Vanderbilt said. "Her enthusiasm for the subject made her a natural leader of a working group analyzing patterns of biodiversity across study plots. Jennifer was truly an asset to the workshop, and it was a pleasure to work with her."

In addition to workshop sessions, Holm traveled to the Pasoh forest to see one of the world's largest and oldest dynamic forest plots – a large area where every tree has been identified, tagged and mapped. The Pasoh plot is 50 hectares in size, roughly the size of 100 football fields, and includes more than 400,000 individual trees drawn from 817 species.

Similar, but usually smaller forest study plots, have been established since the mid-1980s by the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Tropical Forest Studies. Since that time, numerous plots have been established by nations in the East-Asia Pacific region. However, most research has focused on individual plots. The focus of the workshop Holm attended was on answering questions that could only be addressed using data from multiple plots. Managing such large and complex datasets requires application of advanced computational tools.

Within the workshop, a working group led by Holm used innovative statistical techniques and technologies to examine how forest diversity differs between plots within the East Asia-Pacific region and with similar plots located in the forests of Panama and Puerto Rico. Prior to attending the workshop, Holm spent a week with scientist Chau Chin Lin and his associates at the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute in Taipei, Taiwan familiarizing herself with informatics tools and helping to prepare for the workshop.

"I was really impressed by all the participants at the workshop and their eagerness to collaborate, learn from each other and work together as group," Holm said. "I was also impressed by the campus of the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia, with its beautiful setting, which helped make the collaboration of the workshop that much easier."

John Porter, a U.Va. environmental scientist who specializes in the emerging discipline of eco-informatics – the merging of ecology with computer science – also participated in the workshop.